Bundles of Yemeni currency are pictured at a post office before being handed to public sector employees as salaries in Sanaa, Yemen January 25, 2017. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Already suffering grievously under nearly two years of civil war, many thousands of Yemeni state workers now face destitution as their salaries have gone largely unpaid for months.

The immediate reason is a decision by the internationally-recognised government to move Yemen’s central bank out of Sana’a, the capital city controlled by the armed Al Houthi movement with which it is at war after the militia was found to have plundered its coffers.

Underlying the bank’s move to Aden, the southern port where the government is based, is a struggle for legitimacy between the two sides. The result of Al Houthis’ intransigence is to deepen economic hardship when four-fifths of Yemen’s 28 million people already need some form of humanitarian aid, according to United Nations (UN) estimates.

“I sold everything I have to cover the rent and the price of the children’s school and food. I have nothing left to sell,” said Ashraf Abdullah, 38, a government employee in Sana’a.

“Salaries have become a playing card in the war, and no one cares about the fate of the people who die of starvation every day,” the father of two told Reuters.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting while millions face poverty and starvation. Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015 to back President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi after the Al Houthis, who are aligned to Iran, pushed him out of Sana’a.

The administration in Aden says it had to move the bank in August because the Al Houthis had looted the funds to pay soldiers and fighters waging war against it.

It has promised to pay salaries to public servants even in the main population centres, which are mostly in Al Houthi hands.

Prime Minister Ahmad bin Dagher said it had sent a payment on Wednesday. Banking sources say this covers December, but added that four months of wages remain unpaid for most employees.

The crisis has affected tens of thousands of employees in Sana’a alone, a source in the Civil Services ministry said.

It is unclear how many of the 250,000 employees registered nationwide before the Al Houthis seized Sana’a in 2014 have received incomplete salaries - as a large proportion in government-held areas have been paid. Nor is the number of public workers appointed by the Al Houthis after their rise to power, estimated in the tens of thousands.

The government denies it is trying to undermine support for the Al Houthi militia by impoverishing state workers living under their rule. Instead, it accuses Al Houthis of obstructing the payments and insists they be the ones to disburse the funds.

“The coup militia [Al Houthis]... [is] refusing to hand over lists of employees’ salaries in institutions and government agencies in the capital Sana’a and the provinces they control,” government news agency SABA quoted an official as saying.

While Al Houthis still control the main towns and cities in the north and west, they have steadily lost ground to government troops backed up by thousands of Gulf Arab air strikes.

Still, the government continues to try to extend its influence over the land it rules. It also faces a southern secessionist movement, restive tribes and Islamist terrorists, while many services such as electricity and water are scarce.

In the struggle for legitimacy, both sides appear keen to deprive the other of any mantle of truly national authority, which paying salaries across the battle lines would confer.

Current and retired soldiers demanding their dues have even regularly demonstrated in the streets in recent days, suggesting the non-payments may not be strictly political.

— with inputs from Reuters